Trump’s ‘wall’ is already hindering HE collaboration

The westward drive from the northern Mexican city of Mexicali to Tijuana on the Pacific coast runs alongside the border fence with the United States. The fence is more than five metres high in some places and continues through rugged barren rocky landscapes and desert shrubland, along Tijuana beach, reaching almost 100 metres into the sea before it abruptly stops.

Made of solid iron bars, this is the fence US presidential candidate Donald Trump wants to replace with a border “wall”, which, famously, he says, the Mexicans will pay for themselves.

Whether or not it comes about, just talk of the wall accompanied by anti-Mexican rhetoric by the Republican candidate, has created a worrying atmosphere for higher education institutions on both sides of the fence.

Thriving research collaboration on common regional issues such as the border economy, the environment and immigration, as well as student and faculty exchanges and any future prospects for Mexican-US joint degrees could be jeopardised by anti-Mexican rhetoric and a climate of hostility over greater integration of the border regions, academics say.

Centro de Enseñanza Técnica y Superior or CETYS University, a private institution in Mexico, has three campuses close to the border in the Mexican state of Baja California, adjoining the US state of California. The campuses in Mexicali, Ensenada and Tijuana teach degrees in engineering, business, law and psychology in English “to prepare students for the border economy and for a globalised world”, according to the university’s president, Fernando León Garcia.

Tijuana is home to hundreds of foreign-owned factories that were based in Mexico to take advantage of cheaper labour and lax environmental laws even before the North American Free Trade Agreement facilitated trade with the US.

All the big multinationals are here. Sanyo, Sony, Foxconn (which manufactures Apple iPhones), Hitachi, Toyota, Hyundai and Ford Motors are just some of the international automotive and consumer electronics companies in Tijuana.

León is not clear what Trump really means by a ‘wall’. “Physically a wall exists already – the fence exists. But that has not inhibited interaction between Baja California and California,” said León.
There is significant collaboration between universities on both sides of the border, he says, but “if there are measures that begin to restrict who can come and go, then that [collaboration] might be impacted”.

For now, the US-Mexican border is the world’s most frequently crossed controlled international boundary with more than 350 million legal crossings a year.

“The free flow of professionals going northward and going southward is still more than you would find elsewhere in the world,” says León.

US study trips

Carlos García Alvarado, CETYS University's director for institutional relations, describes the border region as a “practical laboratory” for students to experience different international corporations and corporate cultures.

“Almost every week we have study trips to San Diego [in California], to the San Francisco area or Los Angeles for the electronics industries; it is an opportunity for students to do something practical rather than theoretical,” said García.

“We like to think the content of our courses is relevant for any type of economic landscape not just the one across the border with the US.”

Nonetheless, the focus of CETYS University's internationalisation drive could shift, he says. “We have 40 to 50 working agreements with universities all over the world. Students will go to Europe or even Australia – it will be more expensive and cumbersome, but the world does not end with one country.

“A wall would be disastrous for the California economy and even more so than for the Mexican economy if free movement of trade is hampered. But more than that it will raise the level of tension and that could easily evolve from an anti-Trump emotion to an anti-American emotion. It could be like a Cold War scenario.”

This view is echoed elsewhere. “I cannot imagine that anything good will come out of Trump,” said Armando Vazquez-Ramos of the Chicano and Latino studies department of California State University in Long Beach, US.

“I think there will be regional chaos. Mexicans will revolt, including higher education institutions – they will think: why put at risk Mexican students coming to the US where there is already limited access. Mexican institutions would begin to sever relationships [with the US] and ship their students out to Europe,” he said.

Academic collaboration

The border runs from West to East through California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas on the US side.

Celestino Fernandez, a professor of sociology at the University of Arizona in Tucson in the US, has taught in Arizona as well as at CETYS University. “As an institution 100 km North [of the border] we see ourselves as being on the border,” he says.

Research collaborations at the University of Arizona are on border issues from pollution to economic development.

“Academics want to engage with each other across the border, so it is sad to hear all anti-Mexican rhetoric and rhetoric about sealing the border,” Fernandez adds.

“Here in Arizona we are concerned about more wall in addition to what’s already there, and more enforcement – more paperwork, more controls, more time, it’s a barrier to exchange,” said Fernandez.

San Diego State University or SDSU teaches four of its regular courses across the border at the public Autonomous University of Baja California, which has campuses in Mexicali, Ensenada and Tijuana.

“Our long-term goal is to begin to educate people so that they are capable of functioning in the bi-national region,” said Paul Ganster, director of the Institute for Regional Studies of the Californias at SDSU, but he acknowledges that setting this up “required significant effort on our part and was very challenging”.

Such interactions do not need further impediments he said, concerned more by the prospect of an administration hostile to Mexico and Hispanic peoples, than an actual border wall which at an estimated US$40 billion to construct, is unlikely to materialise, he believes.

“There are many spill-over effects in border regions, the economy, pollution, disease, cultural activities and the vitality that transcends the border, and all of these depend on people communicating across the border. Despite modern technology, face-to-face contact is still critical in terms of getting work done across the border,” Ganster said

Tighter controls

Prior to 9/11 – the attack on New York’s twin towers in September 2001 – the southern border was being opened up, Mexican academics and students could cross to the US in 10 to 15 minutes. After 9/11, with the country’s emphasis on national security, the wait could stretch as long as three hours.

Border waits are “a huge disincentive” for collaborative research and student exchange. Instead of hopping across for three hours, academics must plan a full day “because you're never sure how long it’s going to take on the border”, said Ganster.

Another knock-on effect of the emphasis on national security is that US funding for cross-border research declined. But, despite that, colleagues maintain long-term collaborations across the border and are working jointly but informally on various projects, Ganster said.

This was not helped by the Mexican drug cartels war, which caused an uptick of violence. “Many US universities were prohibited from sending students across the border. My university decided the border was unsafe. University of Texas at El Paso did the same thing, prohibiting exchanges,” said Ganster, who believes the knee-jerk reactions of university leaders to media reports of drug violence were already hugely damaging.

As violence has decreased in Mexico, US universities in the border states have reignited student activities but there is still a sense, particularly further away from the border that Mexico is unsafe for US students and ‘drug wars’ have become part of the anti-Mexican narrative in the US.

Student visas

Universities on the US side are clear – a 'wall' in whatever form, solid or psychological, would have an impact on student visas, and that could have significant effect on the income of universities along the border.

“We’d get fewer students from Mexico,” says the University of Arizona’s Fernandez. “We have Mexican students at all levels, undergraduate, masters and doctorate. They pay a higher rate, the same rate as out-of-state students.”

“Universities want to remain open and they want students from different countries, and particularly our neighbouring country, and we are very aware that political changes can have a direct impact on our ability to attract students from different parts of the world,” he said.

The University of Texas at El Paso has some 9,000 Mexican students and many more of Mexican heritage born in the US who see themselves as bi-cultural.

A survey conducted in March of more than 40,000 students in 118 countries by global marketing consultancy Intead and FPP EDU Media which runs student recruitment fairs, found that eight out of 10 students from Mexico would be less likely to study in the US if Trump wins – far higher than the six out of ten students worldwide who say they would be deterred by a Trump victory.

This does not bode well for Mexico’s 'Proyecta 100,000' programme to send 100,000 Mexican students to the US, and receive 50,000 US students in Mexico by 2018 – a target already falling woefully short. Mexico sends only around 14,000 students to the US, with 4,000 US students going the other way.

“The actual number of exchanges of Mexican students coming to the US is dismal – Mexico does not have a history of sending students to the US. Mexico has very little resources and has historically sent students to Europe and Latin America,” said Vazquez-Ramos.

Struggling outposts

This is reflected in Mexican university outposts in the US, already struggling to bring Mexican students on short programmes and exchanges. Paula de Gortari is director of the Los Angeles outpost of Mexico’s largest university, the National Autonomous University of Mexico or UNAM, with five outposts in the US as well as collaborations with universities in the United Kingdom, Paris, Madrid and China.

The Los Angeles outpost offers short courses in film and literature, and caters to the Hispanic population in the US, although it also brings some 200-250 students from Mexico each year for short-term programmes.

Despite all the ‘wall’ rhetoric, Gortari says: “UNAM is putting a lot of money into bringing Mexican students to the US."

"We are spending a lot to keep the fees low,” she says, referring to the devaluation of the Mexican peso which has made study in the US very expensive for Mexican students well before any Trump effect set in.

An extension office in Los Angeles of Mexico’s University of Colima closed this year after six years of operation because of financial difficulties. Some of their courses in Spanish were aimed at the Hispanic population in the US, often marginalised by the lack of education alternatives in the US system.

“Trump’s rhetoric has certainly generated feelings of rejection for Mexican migrants,” said Ana Uribe, a professor and researcher at the University of Colima, and former director of its Los Angeles extension. “However, I can say that for now [Trump] has not become a limiting factor for Mexican students’ decision to study in the United States.”

But branch campuses in the two countries and more joint courses could become even harder to set up.

“I consider the creation of Mexican universities in the United States or any educational programme aimed at immigrants will have greater acceptance when endorsed and supported by US partnerships,” said Uribe. “It is very difficult to sustain Mexican educational projects abroad because of a lack of financial resources.”